As the UW Health Transplant Center continues to look to the future, it has depended on the generosity of financial donors such as entrepreneur and philanthropist Pleasant T. Rowland. Founder of the Pleasant Company (now American Girl), Rowland recently donated $10 million to the center, and she has a personal story as to why this donation was so important to her.

In 2012, after two decades of living with chronic kidney disease, Rowland learned she was in Stage 4 kidney failure. Micah Chan, MD, MPH (PG ’08), her nephrologist at UW Health and a professor in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s (SMPH) Department of Medicine, said her kidneys were performing at about 15 percent, and she needed to start dialysis or receive a kidney transplant.

Pleasant Rowland
Pleasant Rowland

Rowland consulted with Dixon Kaufman, MD, PhD, FACS, director of the UW Health Transplant Center. She asked him, “If I were your mom, what would you recommend?” His answer was decisive. “You need a transplant,” he said, “and soon.”

After UW Health staff tested her family members, Rowland learned none were a good match, so she wrote a letter “to everyone I knew,” she says. In it, she explained she had been living with kidney disease for years, and because of the disease’s progression, she needed a transplant within two months.

“Never did I think I would be writing a letter with a request of such gravity,” she wrote. “If this is something you cannot do for any of a multitude of reasons, please know that I will love you no less.” Rowland was stunned when she learned that several people volunteered to donate.

“I don’t know who all these people are,’’ she says. “And due to how the process works, I may never know.”

Tests showed two people were good matches. Within weeks, Kaufman was transplanting a donated kidney. Rowland very gratefully received her gift of life and left the hospital two days later. She already could feel her energy returning.

“This was a miracle to me,’’ she says. “I was blessed to live so close to a world-renowned transplant center.”

Rowland continued her care under the conscientious watch of her transplant nurse coordinators—Leah Madden, RN, BSN, CCTC, and Rebecca Dillis, RN, BSN, CCTC—and Arjang (Aji) Djamali, MD, MS (PG ’03), professor and chief of the Division of Nephrology in the SMPH Department of Medicine. As Rowland recovered, the team got her through a few bumps in the road, and Djamali worked to modify her immunosuppression to get the best function from her new kidney. Her care team will support her throughout her transplant journey.

Due to her gratitude for her gift of life, Rowland was inspired to give a gift to others who come to the UW Health Transplant Center seeking a second chance at life. Her $10 million gift will support creation of the Pleasant T. Rowland Transplant Clinic, which will be located near the main entrance of University Hospital. The new location will allow for easier access for patients; significantly expand clinical space to reduce the need for patients to travel within University Hospital for associated services; improve technology; and add features to increase patient comfort.

An architectural rendering of a hospital
An artist’s rendition shows the entrance of the future Pleasant T. Rowland Transplant Clinic. Flad Architects, Madison, Wisconsin

This gift is her way of thanking organ donors, their families and her care team at UW Health.

“I’ve seen firsthand how the UW Health Transplant Center offers a second chance at life,” says Rowland. “Life after transplant is wonderful.”

She feels especially thankful for the remarkable care team that helped her on her journey.

“This is my gift to others who face the same challenges I did and to the world-class transplant team at University Hospital,” says Rowland.

To people with kidney disease who may hesitate to ask friends and family to consider being a living donor, she has this advice: “This is no time to be shy.”

By Kathy Schultz and Beth Earnest
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.